Tired of sacrifice for their crisis

September 2, 2009

David Russitano, a teacher and member of United Educators of San Francisco, responds to a recent article in his union's newspaper about the California budget crisis.

IT'S THE start of another school year in San Francisco, and right off the bat, teachers are being hit with the consequences of filling a $60 million budget gap over the next two years. The school district has already increased class size in kindergarten and 9th grade. With the threat of layoffs looming in the spring, teachers and paraprofessionals already fear for their jobs and expect more class size increases to follow.

A recent article on the front page of the Educator, the newspaper of the United Educators of San Francisco (UESF), was devoted to this crisis.

For the last two years, UESF members have been fighting against layoffs, and they have largely won with the help of a city rainy-day fund. This year, the rainy-day fund has run out--and with it the union leadership's strategy of stopping layoffs.

In the Educator article, UESF President Dennis Kelly is quoted saying, "What the district needs to do is take a long hard look at the books and determine where cuts can be made outside of the classroom. Laying off teachers and paras, and increasing class size should be the last possible option considered."

Members of United Educators of San Francisco at a solidarity picket
Members of United Educators of San Francisco at a solidarity picket

The article further lays out a strategy of taking "a magnifying glass to the SFUSD [San Francisco Unified School District] budget" to fix the problem. Yet we know already that if we scrutinize the books, we won't be able to magically find $60 million in administrative waste. We need a new plan.

First, our union shouldn't consider layoffs, even as last option. Second, the idea that we should help manage the crisis is actually laying the ideological groundwork for concessions and layoffs. So in the upcoming months, the district will be able to say it did look at the books, and was able to save $10 million in administrative and other waste, and that it did everything it could to stop layoffs, but now teachers have to do our part.

Instead of sharing the pain, we need to say that the money is out there. The rich have enough money to solve this crisis right now.

The current union leadership is right to say tax the oil companies and to propose raising taxes on corporations. However, we can't wait until 2010 for the next election--we need to start that fight today. At every school, we should begin a discussion about taking action against this criminal budget. We know that more layoff notices will be hitting us in March 2010.

Maybe we should plan a one-hour strike at schools on the day the pink slips go out. Possibly, we could turn that day into a large teach-in at each site, involving students and the community.

Of course, this probably would not be enough. We should think of other ways to hit the state where it hurts. Refusing to administer the annual state tests would be a way to challenge both the state and the degradation of public education in general. But unless we begin organizing now, nothing like this will be possible, and we will have to accept layoffs.

Our union leadership should initiate real discussions at every work site to collectively determine an aggressive plan for resisting. Starting now, our message needs to be "no layoffs, no concessions."

The idea that teachers and students in California need to accept that the state has no money is ludicrous. If California were a country, it would still be one of the top 10 largest economies in the world. If the rich only paid the same percentage of their income in taxes as the poorest 20 percent pay, we would have solved this budget "crisis" already. But it will be up to us to create the pressure on the ground to force the state to collect those taxes.

By accepting the framework of fighting over a smaller pie, it's as if we've already conceded the fight before it has begun. No layoffs and no concessions--let's get ready for a battle.

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